Milgram’s Research(1963)

Key Terms:

Conformity is the changing your behaviour/beliefs as a result of group influence

Obedience is where an individual carries out a direct order (doing something because you have been specifically told to do so)


Aim: To see if people will obey orders, even those requiring them to harm others.

Procedure: 40 American males were recruited through a newspaper advert. They were told that the study was to do with how punishment affects learning. The ‘experimenter’ (a confederate) assigned the participant to the role of ‘teacher’ through a rigged draw, whilst another person (another confederate) was given the role of ‘learner’. The learner had to answer word-pairing questions, and if they gave an incorrect answer, the teacher was told to administer an electric shock. The teacher and learner were in separate rooms, so could hear each other but not see each other. The electric shocks increased in intensity, from 15-450 volts, and each time the learner answered incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to give the next highest shock. In reality, no shocks were administered, the learner only pretending to receive shocks. At 300 volts the learner began banging on the wall and protesting, and after 315 he gave no further response. Four ‘prods’ were used to encourage the participant to continue- if they still protested after this, they could withdraw from the study.

Findings: 65% of participants went to the maximum (450 volt) shock. None stopped before 300 volts. Many showed signs of tension and anxiety, for example sweating, shaking, and nervously laughing, but the majority continued to the end.

Conclusions: People will obey orders from an authority figure (the experimenter, who was wearing a white lab coat), potentially fatally harming a stranger in doing so.

Evaluation - Validity:

  • Participants must have known that the situation can’t have been real, so were stressed by having to act along with the situation (although, when questioned, participants did say they thought it was real).
  • Sheridan and King (1972) suggests participants would have acted the same with real shocks- when instructed to give real (non-lethal) shocks to a real-life puppy, most participants obeyed.
  • Hofling et al (1966): nurses were told over the phone by a ‘doctor’ to give twice the advised dosage of a made-up drug to patients- 21 out of 22 obeyed (95%), supporting Milgram’s findings that people are obedient and strengthening the external validity of the findings.
  • Rank and Jacobsen (1975): same set up as Hofling, but the drug was familiar (Valium) and the nurses could consult with others- this time, only 2 out of 18 obeyed (11%). This challenges Milgram’s findings that people are obedient, weakening the external validity of the findings.

Evaluation - Ethics:

  • Participants were deceived and there was a lack of informed consent- they didn’t know the shocks weren’t real, and didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for.
  • There was no real right to withdraw- the ‘prods’ kept the participants from withdrawing.
  • Participants experienced severe stress and psychological harm, thinking that they had potentially killed someone.
  • Milgram claimed the results could not have been foreseen- it was predicted that only 3% of participants would go to 450 volts.
  • Milgram debriefed his participants afterwards, telling them what had really happened. When questioned, 84% felt glad to have taken part.

Obedience, figure 1

Obedience: Situational Variables

Proximity: Milgram varied his experiment so that the teacher and learner were in the same room. Obedience dropped to 40%, because the teacher could see the consequences of their actions. In another variation, the experimenter was not in the same room, instead giving orders by phone. In this variation, obedience dropped to 20.5%, as the teacher did not feel the pressure to obey. Some even lied to the experimenter in this condition, claiming they were giving stronger shocks than what they actually were.

Location: The experiment was moved from the prestigious Yale University to a run-down office block. Obedience fell to 47.5%, because the lack of prestige of the location made it seem less important to obey.

Uniform: The experimenter was called away to answer an ‘important telephone call’ and was replaced by a ‘member of the public’ (another confederate) wearing ordinary clothes, rather than a lab coat. Obedience dropped to 20%, because participants did not see the authority figure as legitimate.


  • Bickman (1974) supports the influence of uniform. Passers-by were asked to perform actions (e.g. picking up litter) by a confederate dressed as a security guard, milkman, or just in a jacket and tie. There was more obedience in the security guard condition, showing the effect of uniform.
  • Milgram’s variations lack internal validity- participants may have worked out that the procedure was faked. This was perhaps most likely in the uniform variation, which was very contrived. Therefore, obedience was not truly being measured.
  • Milgram controlled his variables closely, only altering one thing at a time in his variations, increasing the validity of his findings.

Obedience: Social-Psychological Factors

Agentic state: Milgram proposed that one reason why people obeyed in his study was due to the ‘agentic state’. This is a psychological condition in which a person does not feel in control of their actions; rather, they are under the control of someone else (an agent for someone else). The opposite to the agentic state is the autonomous state, where people do feel responsible for their actions. Milgram’s participants perhaps underwent an agentic shift, allowing them to blame the authority figure and absolving themselves of responsibility. Milgram also proposed ‘binding factors’ which are used by the participant to justify their actions (for example, the ‘learner’ gave consent to take part, so it’s ok to carry on shocking him).

Legitimacy of authority: This explanation suggests that people will obey someone they perceive to be ‘above’ them in the social hierarchy, and therefore think they have the right to give orders. This is linked with the uniform factor, as a uniform conveys a sense of legitimacy and authority. This authority is ‘rightful’, as it is agreed by society that it is necessary for some people to be able to tell others what to do in some situations.

Obedience, figure 1


  • The agentic shift cannot explain why some participants in Milgram’s study did not obey, as in theory they should all have been in an agentic state. Therefore, this cannot explain all obedience, or obedience over long periods of time (such as in Nazi Germany).
  • Blass and Schmitt (2001) asked observers to explain who they thought was responsible for the harm caused to the learner in Milgram’s study. Most though the experimenter was responsible, so supporting the agentic state explanation.
  • Legitimacy of authority is supported by cultural differences. In countries where obedience and deference to authority is less valued (such as Australia), obedience rates are much lower than in countries that value legitimate authority figures (such as Germany), suggesting legitimacy of authority does play a part in obedience.

Obedience: Dispositional Explanations

According to this explanation, obedience happens because of a person’s personality- certain personality types can lead to a person becoming more, or less, obedient. Adorno interviewed former Nazi soldiers at the end of World War II, and developed the ‘F-Scale’ (F standing for ‘fascist’), which measured how authoritarian a person is. He used this in a study of American participants. He found that a high F-Scale score was linked with excessive respect and deference to those of higher status, and concluded that an ‘authoritarian personality’ is a factor in obedience. The features of an authoritarian personality are:

  • Negative towards those they see as ‘beneath’ them and obedient towards those of higher status (or perceived higher status)
  • Rigid in their opinions
  • Belief in ‘traditional’ values
  • Not willing to accept any new ideas or new situations
  • Likely to categorise people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ groups, seeing the ‘us’ group as superior

People with this type of personality were more likely to have had a strict upbringing, which gives them respect for authority, but also creates resentment of their parents on an unconscious level, which is displaced onto those perceived as lower than them.


  • Milgram and Elms (1966) found a link between obedience participants and a high F-scale score, suggesting that having an authoritarian personality is associated with obedience.
  • The link is only correlational- it cannot be concluded that the personality type causes obedience, rather that the two traits are related in some way (a correlational link). This weakens the explanation that the authoritarian personality causes someone to be obedient.
  • It is hard to apply the explanation to large groups of people or whole populations such as Nazi Germany, as not everyone will have had an authoritarian personality. This weakens the explanation.
With reference to the above, outline two explanations for obedience.
Your answer should include: Legitimacy / Authority / Uniform / Authoritarian / Personality / Respect